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Differences Between Mother Tongue and a Second Language

Differences Between Mother Tongue and a Second Language | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Anyone who has tried to learn a language as a second language is likely to express at some stage or another how difficult it is. We speak of absorbing our first language and having to work hard for our second. We will often look towards those who have learned more than one language at the same time, bilingual for example, as being lucky and that the path was easier for them. So, is the first language easier to learn and why, and can we use those techniques to learn or teach a second language?

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Kevin A. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Language of Our Close Environment

We start to learn a language from birth with the sounds made by our parents and those around us, some consider that we hear sounds from the womb but from birth will suffice for now. Our parents were likely to have been caring and attentive and would have made all sorts of noises and used tonality and intonation changes along with facial expressions and gestures. We would have started copying these sounds and at some stage, we would have uttered our first word, much to the delight of our parents and their reactions would have pleased us. We were beginning to communicate and that is something that we had an instinctive need to do.

Our educators over the following years, parents, visitors and then school teachers were probably all native speakers and we would have heard and copied correct pronunciation developing certain facial muscles as we go. Initially, our grammar was more or less correct otherwise it didn’t sound right and this was later re-enforced by schooling. These educators might have regularly encouraged and corrected us and with the enthusiasm, we tend to show young children. In turn, we would have been enthused to learn as our new communication skills opened a new world to us.

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Artificial Process

Let us now consider learning our second language and by this, we mean a language non-native to us. It will be easy to see the differences. We no longer have those dedicated, caring teachers who constantly made the right sounds around us on an almost constant basis. Our reasons for learning may well be a strong desire to communicate, a romantic relationship, well-paid overseas employment are strong motivators but not as strong as needed to communicate for our well-being. We will be armed with some language-learning advantages, we have already learned one language and will understand the use of tonality changes, facial expressions and gestures and we may see similarities with words and grammar between our first and second language. Our input and time spent learning are likely to be very different. School lessons, adult classes, even one to one with a teacher is unlikely to produce the same time spent on the learning and much will depend on our learning style and personal motivations.

Two interesting factors that we may not be aware of; our ability to distinguish between similar sounds that may not exist in our own language deteriorates with age, (Katie Harris), and we are likely to be required to make sounds that are unfamiliar to our mouth and facial muscles. Accents can play a large part in how well we communicate even in our first language.

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Which Language is Easier to Learn?

So, in answering our first question, is the first language easier to learn and why? Easier may be subjective and we may have an impression of the ease for a child but can we really measure their effort? Perhaps this frustration can be seen in certain child behavior. It is estimated that a child will initially take two years to learn its first 200 words, (Paul Mains 2015), an amount of time that an adult could learn considerably more. When we think of adult learners, we can easily imagine outside pressures of work, family and just life that occupy much of our time and can dent our motivation.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that as children we lack much if not all of the fear and embarrassment that we accumulate as we get older. The fear of making mistakes, of being ridiculed and just getting it wrong. Children are naturally curious and vocal with it.

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Do you want to teach English as a second language?

Can this help us then, in learning that second language? Well, understanding the differences in learning might take out some of the mystery. It should certainly reduce some of the stress when we feel we are not making the progress we want to make. Similarly, understanding that we need not be fearful nor worry about making mistakes, after all, making mistakes is how we learn, should reduce our inhibitions and the restrictions in practicing the new language. These are all things that as teachers, we can incorporate into our lessons and maybe aid our student's comprehension and learning.

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